A boisterous crowd defied the near-freezing rain at the Government Wharf in Bella Coola March 15 for the noon hour rally coinciding with rallies up and down the coast protesting government cuts to BC Ferries services.
The twin themes of the rally, sponsored by Bella Coola Valley Tourism (BCVT), called on the BC government to “Save the Discovery Coast Ferry” and “Give us back the Chilliwack”, a reference to the decision to pull the MV Queen of Chilliwack out of service as part of the cost-cutting measures announced last fall by the Ministry of Transportation.
The change means that the MV Nimpkish, a 16-car vessel unable to make the direct sailing between Bella Coola and Port Hardy, is slated to replace the Chilliwack – which can carry 115 cars. The Chilliwack has sailed the route directly for 16 summers and can make the direct sailing in 11 hours. Opponents of the plan say it will repel tourists, rather than attract them.
The plan will have the Nimpkish, which is the smallest vessel in the entire BC Ferries fleet and which has no on-board amenities such as food services, sailing the often perilous Burke Channel after a transfer at Bella Bella, where there are few tourist facilities. The Transportation Ministry plans to refit the Nimpkish so that the nine-hour voyage between Bella Coola and Bella Bella will be more appealing.
Rally placards included a demand to “Stop Todd Stonewalling” and an invitation to Christy to take the Nimpkish Cruise on the “New Todd Stonewalling Circle Tour”. Despite heavy protest, petitions and letter-writing campaigns since the cuts were announced in November, Transportation Minister Todd Stone and Premier Christy Clark have refused to budge on their decision to uphold the recommendations of BC Ferries.
A rally organizer representing BCVT noted that an umbrella company that sends $1 billion worth of tourism business to Canada annually has recently informed Stone that the firm is boycotting not just the Discovery Coast but all of British Columbia.
Local troubadour Doug Baker, the BCVT Vice-President, after 17 years promoting tourism development in the region, performed his specially penned “Give Us Back the Chilliwack”, asking if the cut of the Chilliwack was because the North Coast riding is NDP or because “you want us to join the LNG”. His song described the Nimpkish, with its open car deck so low that sea water overflows the deck in heavy seas, as a “toy in a fjord”.
After refitting at considerable cost in recent years, the Chilliwack had been slated to operate for at least three more years. The government claims this ferry service has been under used (30 – 40 percent full) and losing too much money, but figures show that direct daylight sailings of the Chilliwack between Bella Coola and Port Hardy were 71 percent full. Tourism promoters have been asking for a rescheduling that would make the route more viable for the 2014 season at least.
In a poignant performance, Nuxalk drummers Chris and Lance Nelson led a group singing a paddling song, saying the entire Bella Coola community is “on this journey together”, striving toward “the same destination”. Hereditary Chief Noel Pootlass stressed the economic importance of tourism to the Central Coast, the heart of the Great Bear Rain Forest, where an aboriginal tourism industry is in its fledgling stages.
Local Kathy Nylen, a tourism industry promoter who served on the BC Ferries Advisory Committee for 12 years before resigning in frustration with BC Ferries, noted that the mammography equipment that has come to Bella Coola annually via the larger vessel, will not be able handle the turbulence if shipping on the Nimpkish. “But it’s not over till the fat lady sings,” she said, “and I’m still here”.
Chants of “shame” were generated by environmental engineer Ken Dunsworth who recalled the agreements coastal communities engaged in with government in recent decades to protect vast coast areas because of its tourism potential. Dunsworth and others panned the “business model” that sees coastal ferries as a business that can lose money or make a profit while the costs of inland ferries, operated by the same ministry, are seen as investments in the provincial economy, like the costs of schools, hospitals, and highways.
Brian Lande, representing the Central Coast Regional District, spoke of mismanagement in BC Ferries, who claim that the BC Ferries system is highly complex, but he wonders if they looked at the system in Norway, which serves communities from the same latitude as northern BC to well north of the Arctic Circle.
North Coast MLA Jennifer Rice (NDP) pointed to a recent Prince Rupert study entitled “Beyond Hope”, a reference to a perceived neglect in Victoria of British Columbia’s hinterland. She urged the crowd to move up close to her so she could look them “directly in the eye” – an obvious reference to Transportation Minister Todd Stone. In standing by his guns on his decision to pull the Queen of Chilliwack out of service, Stone has repeatedly said this was a “tough decision” and he will look “directly in the eyes” of those who object. Stone has yet to satisfy charges that the public was not sufficiently consulted during the BC Ferries “community engagement” process that accompanied the decision to cut ferry services.
Rice noted that the cuts were made without a socio-economic impact study because the government operates the ferry service on a business model.
Rice urged the Bella Coola community and all British Columbians to visit the YouTube video of talk show host Christy Clark eight years ago recommending a government takeover of BC Ferries and putting the system back into the Transportation ministry. The video also shows Clark recently defending the ferries cuts.
In contrast to an earlier speaker who said, “We are no longer angry: now we are determined.” Rice said, “I am still angry – very angry – and we are not giving up.”